Baja California and its succulents


Part I

This travel log covers a 15- day trip taken in April 2019 trip to Baja California- Mexico.  On this trip we drove 1000 miles from the southern tip to the northern part near the border with the US in Tijuana. The main objective of the trip was to visit the different succulent plant habitats you can see as you drive the length of the peninsula.  The trip started in Cabo San Lucas where we rented a car (one way rental) at the airport.  We were joined by two Mexican friends who happen to have a background in forestry and are very interested in succulents including cacti.

Photos by Michael and Rosario Douglas.


Baja California peninsula – Mexico from Google Maps.The peninsula consists of two states, Baja California and Baja California Sur. On the other side of the Gulf are the Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa.

Except for Saguaro cacti in Arizona, tall tree-like cacti (arborescent) are not very common in the US. This is not the case south of the border where more than one species of arborescent cacti are important components of the landscape. An example of a conspicuous arborescent cacti south of the border is Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum (commonly known as Indian comb or cardon barbon in Spanish). The fruits were used as combs (2/3rds of the spines were removed) by native Mayo Indians, hence the name. (material from Wikipedia). Another tall cacti in this area is Pachycereus pringlei (common name Mexican Giant Cacti) which extends farther north. 


Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum growing in the dry forests of Baja California Sur-Mexico.


Closer view of Pachycereus pecten aboriginum showing the beautiful golden-spined fruits.

Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum can reach up to 15 m (about 50 ft) in height and have very attractive large round golden-spined fruits. This cactus lives in the dry forests of the Cape area in Baja California Sur, and on “mainland” Mexico from southern Sonora southward along the western dry forests to almost the Guatemala border. Dry forests are a mix of cacti, shrubs and trees that are exposed to seasonal periods of little rain. During this time many trees loose their leaves. 


Distribution of Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum from the I-naturalist website.

The flowers of Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum are white and open at night closing at mid-day. In some areas the flowers are pollinated primarily by nectar-eating bats while in others they are pollinated by both bats and insects. (material from Wikipedia)

If you fly into San Jose del Cabo (the resort of Los Cabos is actually about 20 miles to the southwest) and drive north from the airport on Highway 1 towards the city of La Paz you will see the dry forest in the surrounding hills. You will invariably notice the tall Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum and their lovely fruits. Of course this is not the only cactus that lives in these dry forests so on a number of stops to check the vegetation you would see many other cacti. 


North of the airport near Los Cabos. Dry forest with cacti and small trees. This forest looks green during the rainy period (July-October). This pictures show the forest during the dry season.


Another view showing the cacti in the dry forests north of the Los Cabos airport.

Part II

Continuing north from Los Cabos as we head towards the city of La Paz, it is evident from the vegetation that this is a dry area.


The hills are covered by a mix of shrubs and tall cacti and if you stop and look closer you can see smaller cacti as well.



Keep in mind that April is the height of the dry season and if you visit in September the hills would look green. The road is in good shape and the traffic between Los Cabos and the city of La Paz is light. One of the cacti you will notice is Organ Pipe (Stenocereus thurberi).


Bursera sp in the foreground and Organ Pipe Cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) to the right.

This is the same Organ Pipe from Arizona and it is pretty abundant in this southern area of Baja California. Another tall cacti of these dry forests are the Mexican giant cardon cacti (Pachycereus pringlei). These tall columnar cacti have large white flowers. Some unusual short trees growing with the cacti include several Bursera species, short trees with golden colored stems with peeling bark.


Mexican Giant Cardon (Pachycereus pringlei).

Another tree is the Mexican Palo Verde (Parkinsonia acculeata) which has the ability to photosynthesize via its trunk. The yellow flowers and the green trunks make for a striking color combination.


Parkinsonia acculeata (Mexican Palo Verde)


Parkinsonia acculeata flower

A good reason to get out of the car and explore these hills is that some plants including cacti are not visible from the road. Many cacti actually grow under the partial shade provided by the shrubs. One is the colorful Mammilaria poselgeri (formerly genus Cochemiea), a cactus with very impressive long hooked spines.


Mammillaria poselgeri


Mammillaria poselgeri

Another Mammilaria forming small white clumps was also found in the same area as Mammillaria poselgeri.


Mammillaria sp.

As we continue north we are never too far from the sea.


A prominent cactus in the dry hillsides between Los Cabos and La Paz is the cholla cacti (Cylindropuntia cholla). Cactus wrens like to build their nest in the chollas.


Cylindropuntia cholla


Cylindropuntia cholla and bird nest.

Note the long chain-like joints and their hanging habit. Also found a good number of cholla woody “skeletons” which becomes visible once the plant dies.


So in about 7 hours (without stops you could do this in less than 3 hours) we drove from our place near Los Cabos to the city of La Paz. Many stops to look at the vegetation and landscapes and to take pictures. Very pleasant temperatures and a sunny day provided a winner combination for a day of exploration.

Part III

Continuing with this exploration of Baja California, we continued north towards the city of La Paz. April is the dry season and the leafy trees and shrubs do not have leaves whichmakes it easier to spot succulents such as the cacti Pachycereus pringlei, Organ Pipe (Stenocereus thurberi) and Bursera species with their yellow trunks.



Landscape on the road north of the airport in Los Cabo


Dry tropical deciduous forest.  Trees are leafless in the dry season.


Pachycereus pringlei, Stenocereous thurberi.

Traffic was light making it relatively easy to look for places to stop to check the vegetation. We find a large Mammillaria in one such stop.


Botanizing along the side of the road south of La Paz.


Mammillaria albicans?

The next day we explored the small peninsula (Pichilingue) north of the city of La Paz about 20 minutes from the hotel/downtown area of La Paz. This area was dry, but had mangrove-lined lagoons and the nearby hills were covered with a variety of succulents.


Black mangroves in the foreground and dry hills in the Pichilingue area near La Paz.

Some of the succulents included the cactus Stenocereus gummosus (sour pitaya). This sprawling cactus is found throughout the peninsula, from the city of Ensenada in the north to the southern tip of the peninsula. The white and fragrant flowers are nocturnal. The fruit is edible, and it is used in drinks, delicious ice creams etc.


Pachycereus pringlei (Cardon) and Stenocereus gummosus.


Stenocereus gummosus


Close up of the stem of Stenocereus gummosus.

Other succulents in this area included several Mammillaria species, Organ Pipe (Stenocereus thurberi), Cardon (Pachycereus pringlei), Jathropa cuneata (Limber bush) and a flowering Cylindropuntia alcahes.  Agaves with thin flowering stalks were also scattered about.


Mammillaria arida


Jatropha cuneata (Euphorbia family).


Cylindropuntia alcahes.


Flower of Cylindropuntia alcahes.


Agave sp.

Back in La Paz the beautiful esplanade along the waterfront (Malecon in Spanish) was alive and vibrant on Saturday night. A great place for a meal or a scoop of delicious ice-cream made with Stenocereus gummosus fruit and a great place to wat a lovely sunset over the ocean.


Esplanade along the waterfront in La Paz.




Delicious ice-cream made with the fruit of the cactus Stenocereus gummosus.

As we continued north from La Paz, leaving behind the “Cape Region” (between La Paz and Los Cabos), we entered the Magdalena Plain, a region of flat sandy terrain home to some unique cacti. The vegetation in this area is a mix of succulents and low shrubs.


Vegetation on the Magdalena Plains.  Yucca valida and Pachycereus pringlei, Bursera sp.


Yucca valida

The succulents included Agaves, Yuccas, Ferocactus species, different Mammillarias, Bursera species, Ocotillo (Fouquieria diguetti) which was covered in lichens – an indication of high humidity.




Mammillaria dioica


Mammillaria poselgeri


Bursera sp.


Fouquieria diguetti, Ocotillo only found in Mexico.


Lichens growing on Fouquieria diguetti.

A sandy area with mangrove lagoons near the coastal town of San Carlos is home to the unusual cactus Stenocereus eruca, the Creeping Devil, which is only found in this part of Baja California. Creeping Devil is an apt name for a cactus with formidable spines. The posterior part of this cactus dies while the plant continues to grow giving the appearance that this cactus crawls on the sand fields.


Mangrove lagoons near San Carlos.



The habitat of the endemic cactus Stenocereus eruca (Creeping Devil).


The field was covered with these cacti.


Formidable spines of Stenocereus eruca (Creeping Devil).


Closer view of the spines of Stenocereus eruca.

Not far from this area, also very close to the coast on sandy soil, we found Opuntia pycnantha, an Opuntia that is known mostly from islands just offshore San Carlos (Isla Santa Margarita).


Habitat of Opuntia pycnantha.


Opuntia pycnantha


Sunset on the Magdalena Plains.

We worked fast trying to photograph the Opuntia as sunset was approaching. Our last picture was of the lovely sunset over this sandy area that is home to some unusual cacti, the Magdalena Plain.

The trip up the Baja California peninsula continues through the Magdalena Plain, an area known for foggy cool mornings and low rainfall. Tropical storms provide most of the rain in summer although there is some winter rain.


EnteThe Magdalena Plains. Pachycereus pringlei (Mexican Giant Cardon) and Stenocereus gummosus.



Organ Pipe (Stenocereus thurberi)Organ Pipe (Stenocereus thurberi)


Organ Pipe (Stenocereus thurberi)


Closer view of the spines of Stenocereus thurberi.


Stenocereus thurberi in the background and Lophocereus schottii (Senita) in the foreground.


Lophocereus schottii (Senita) flowering

Many lichens and epiphytes (including Tillandsia recurvata – “ball moss”) occur on plants including cacti due to the fog. Although this area is dry, it has an interesting succulent flora.


Organ Pipe cactus and Tillandsia recurvata (“ball moss”) growing on it

The sandier areas near the coast are home to the Creeping Devil and other cacti. Elsewhere we find cacti such as Stenocereus gummosus, Organ Pipe (Stenocereus thurberi), Lophocereus shottii (Senita), Ferocactus peninsulae and the fierce-looking Grusonia invicta.


Ferocactus peninsulae


Grusonia invicta.


Closer view of the spines of Grusonia invicta.


Grusonia invicta.